Let’s Talk About Timbre
Can you tell the difference between the sound of a piano and the sound of a drum? Of course you can. Young children can do it. VERY young children.
But can you describe how you can tell the difference? Um…
That’s what I thought. Not easy, is it?
The particular sound of each instrument, and every object and material, is called its timbre (pronounced “tamber”). If you’re a music teacher, you know this word and probably teach about the timbre of various instruments.
If you’re a scientist, especially one who studies sound and acoustics, you probably know this term also.
But what does “timbre” mean? I’ve studied music since I was seven, and I never heard the word “timbre” until a music history class in college, when I was taught that it referred to “sound quality” or “tone color.” Both these phrases are misleading and distinctly unhelpful when discussing timbre.
Vague as those descriptions are, though, the scientific descriptions of timbre are often even fuzzier. One physics site I visited described timbre as “those characteristics of sound which allow the ear to distinguish sounds which have the same pitch and loudness… a general term for the distinguishable characteristics of a tone.”
It’s one of those things, though, that in spite of being hard to articulate, are easy to understand, instinctively. You know it when you hear it. When I ask one children how they know a certain sound is a drum, for instance, they’ll say, “Because that’s what a drum sounds like.” Personally, that’s how I’ve always thought of timbre – it’s what something sounds like.
Why should we care about timbre, though? Well, we pay very close attention to visual stimuli, especially in scientific activities. Color, for instance, is a very important way to discriminate between objects visually, and we certainly talk a lot about color, and light, and the color spectrum. What timbre is to sound is a very rough analog to what color is to visual stimuli. (That’s probably where the idea of “tone color” came from.) Since careful listening and auditory discrimination are critical to understanding the science of sound, teachers (including preschool teachers) might want to think about including the exploration of timbre in their curriculum.